Plug farm extension gaps

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Plug farm extension gaps

Monday, 09 September 2019 | A Amarender Reddy

Plug farm extension gaps

If we can address flaws in implementing welfare schemes for farmers, the efficacy of these measures will increase and contribute to doubling farmers’ incomes

In view of the crippling crisis gripping the farm sector, the Centre and all State Governments are giving priority to the welfare of farmers and have, over the years, introduced schemes targeted at increasing farmers’ incomes by 2022. State agriculture departments are responsible for implementing these schemes and though agencies at district and block levels are trying to execute them, some gaps exist.

If these gaps are plugged, the efficacy of these measures will increase and contribute to the national objective of doubling farmers’ incomes.

The Centre depends heavily on States to implement centrally-sponsored benefit programmes like the Soil Health Card (SHC) scheme, Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY) and Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY).

In addition to the Centre’s welfare programmes for cultivators, State Governments also have a number of schemes for their welfare like Rythu Bima and Rythu Bandhu of Telangana and Rythu Bharosa of Andhra Pradesh.

There are more than 20 Government schemes for growers’ benefit but Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) field surveys and even National Sample Survey Office’s (NSSO) assessments show that implementation of and awareness regarding schemes can be vastly improved to achieve Government targets.

Improved dissemination of information will play a key role in this, as getting detailed information about scheme modalities, eligibility criteria, procedure for application and other information at the right time through appropriate channels is crucial for farmers to reap the benefits of ongoing programmes.

Historically, it is the responsibility of state agriculture departments to provide all scheme-related information to farmers. However, over the years, they have been burdened with distribution of subsidies and inputs, with little time left to devote for core extension activities like advising farmers on utility of the schemes, scheme modalities, technicalities, implementation strategies and procedures.

As a result, awareness of schemes like Soil Health Card is low in most cases. Even farmers who are aware of it are not adopting the recommendations based on these advisories. As agriculture department officers are simultaneously engaged in implementing many schemes, they feel that their task is over with the distribution of the cards. However, it requires concentrated efforts by the officers to motivate farmers to apply the right dose of fertilisers, depending on the health of their soil.

The national objective of doubling farmers’ income by 2022 cannot be achieved without the successful implementation of these schemes and increased awareness coupled with proper transfer of knowledge by block agricultural officers are the first steps towards achieving this.

Thus it is vital that all blocks have sufficient officers but the fact remains that there are a large number of block agricultural officers’ positions vacant across India. Currently one agricultural officer serves 1,162 farmers as against the recommended ratio of 1:750.

After liberalisation in the 1990s, agricultural extension has been constrained by limited budget allocation. Further, in recent years more money is allocated to direct money transfers schemes like PM-KISAN or Rythu Bandhu. The expenditure on agricultural extension is only 0.16 per cent of the farm sector’s contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is quite low when compared to international standards. There is an immediate need to increase budget allocation for agricultural extension.

Given that farmers are moving from subsistence to market-oriented farming, more information is needed on seasonal changes in prices, latest farm implements, precision farming, quality standards of produce, export to different countries, export demand and food safety standards. Several Government schemes like crop insurance, subsidy on farm implements, precision farming and electronic agricultural markets are knowledge-intensive. Hence, more budgetary allocations are needed to devise innovative ways of information dissemination and promote new eco-systems even in remote and rural areas.

As agricultural departments alone cannot meet the complex information needs of farmers, there is a need for promoting alternative channels of information dissemination.

Some channels like input dealers, private companies (ITC e-choupals, TATA Kisan Kendras), farmer producer companies (like MAHAGRAPES), cooperative societies (Mulkanoor), some NGOs (Bharatiya Agro-Industries Federation and Action for Food Production) are already active in knowledge dissemination to farmers on input and output markets. Use of multiple information channels (including private) needs to be incorporated into the model agricultural extension policy of the Centre. Still, safeguarding farmers from any misinformation should be top priority.

In spite of efforts by both public and private agencies, it has been found that the reach of agricultural officers and private agencies is limited, especially in remote districts. To enhance last-mile engagement, the Government is employing progressive farmers as kisan mitras (friend of the farmer) with a monthly honorarium, which is showing good results in some areas.

These kisan mitras have good knowledge of local conditions and are able to influence fellow farmers to adopt new technologies. Employing one kisan mitra for two villages and engaging one for each remote village will not only help in technical information dissemination but also help in creating awareness about different Government schemes. Also, now almost every rural household has a 4G or 3G-enabled mobile phone which makes streaming of multi-media videos and short films easy for providing information. These are better tools compared to age-old information tools like posters.

Many start-ups are also developing apps with satellite images and Artificial Intelligence to provide information at the right time in a more accessible media form. Of late, WhatsApp groups comprising farmers, local agricultural officers and NGO partners are becoming popular and effective in identifying local farm sector problems, evolving mutually agreed solutions and speedy adoption. However, local agricultural officers need to take care of farmers who don’t have smartphones, otherwise there is a danger of excluding them from Government schemes.

Also, the market-oriented approaches of private companies need to be used by Government officials in a synergist manner to popularise improved seed varieties, farm machinery, small implements, bio-fertilisers, etc so that it helps in increased adoption of new technologies.

Public-private partnerships need to be encouraged through promotion of rural advisory services and custom hiring centres, especially in hi-tech agriculture and precision farming, where the private sector is strong, for the benefit of farmers.

In the scenario of expanding private sector extension and declining funds for the public sector, there is a danger of concentrating on large farmers mostly in irrigated areas, and neglecting small, women and rain-fed farmers. Hence, the Government should incentivise the private sector to cater to these neglected areas and people, by including them in District Agricultural Plans developed by the Agricultural Technology Management Agency.

Although agricultural officers are known for their technical skills, they are not that skilled in communication and market-oriented approaches. The training institutions should focus on market-oriented information needs like trends in price changes, export demand and food safety standards.

The private and public sector should complement each other in usage of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) tools and the same needs to be synchronised in Block Agriculture Plans. They need to be trained in monitoring agricultural schemes through apps or computerised information systems, so that they can effectively implement these schemes within a limited period and spend more time on information dissemination.

An agriculture officer’s work involves a lot of field work, identifying local problems and co-evolving solutions in partnership with local stakeholders. Hence, they need operational autonomy to take local decisions like involvement of suitable private sector partners in extension, training and demonstrations.

All these measures need innovations backed by sufficient budget, at least 1 per cent of the agricultural GDP needs to be allocated for agricultural extension, so that the objective of doubling incomes of farmers will be achieved.

(The writer is Principal Scientist, ICAR)

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